Over the years of coaching women and advising companies on how to help more women advance in their careers, I’ve developed a three-pronged approach to solving the problem. In order to remedy the situation we need to give women three legs to stand on. We need to support women in owning their own careers, engage managers in supporting women and make sure corporate processes facilitate the development of female leaders.
Supporting women in owning their careers
Not surprisingly, women are at the heart of any solution. As individual women progress in their careers, not only do they benefit, but so does the company. And success begets success – having powerful women in a company usually makes it easier for other women to succeed.
Women need to understand the need to take risks, to move out of their comfort zone and to ask for opportunities. Women are often overlooked for promotion for as simple of a reason as she has not asked for the opportunity. Similarly, sometimes she puts herself forward but prior to that point she has not raised her profile sufficiently to be seen as credible for the role. Sometimes it is a matter of encouraging her to take a role that is out of her expertise so she gets the breadth of experience she needs to lead at a higher level.
Leading well requires a constant adjustment to other styles to get the best out of the team. Any leader, women included, need help understanding how they are perceived and in taking action to correct any problems. Women often don’t get the feedback they need early enough. A high quality 360-degree review process is one way to help. And once she has that information, she needs guidance in how she can improve those areas where she needs development.
The third thing that women can do is to make sure they have a strong and supportive network of female peers who are having the same experiences. Without that kind of support, women can feel isolated.
Sadly, these situations are all too common. Take Anne, a high potential who is highly valued by her manager and the CEO, wants to get promoted. Last year, she talked with her manager about a potential promotion in the upcoming year. Nothing else was said over the course of the year and she assumed she would be promoted. She was sorely disappointed to learn she wasn’t even considered for promotion. In the course of that year, she should have been asking her manager and others their view of her role and capability. And, she should have been asking about the process for promotion. She should have been launching a campaign for the role, rather than assuming others were looking out for her best interests.
Engaging managers in supporting her
After the woman herself, her direct manager is the second-most important person in her career. The advice, guidance, feedback and support a manager gives is absolutely essential to her success.
There are four concrete things managers can do to support a female employer. First of all, the most important thing any manager can do for any employee is to give effective feedback and keep her on track with her development agenda. Secondly, a manager has to understand her and her unique experiences so he/she can support her, guide her and defend her if it is needed. The third thing a manager can do is to help an employee build her reputation, brand and network. And lastly, a manager can create an environment of inclusivity, of genuine trust, where she feels she is valued and her opinions are considered.
The connection with the manager is so crucial. Take Alice as an example of how it can very wrong for the employee and the company. She is a high performer, highly valued but disengaged in her career. Why? She talks to her manager about once every 15 weeks, he rarely gives her feedback. There are no discussions with the manager or anyone else about her career progression and as a result she thinks her career is stalled. She is so keen for development that she pays for her own coaching – something that is common among women but that men do not do. Finally, she is bored with the job – she could do it in her sleep and pretty much is doing exactly that.
Making sure processes do not create barriers for her
The third leg for women to stand on fall within the responsibility of the organization. The processes and structures that create a fair and safe environment for women to succeed are not built overnight and require diligence on everyone’s part.
Three of the main things organizations can do make sure they support women are one, ensure talent identification and discussions are grounded in observations not in hearsay and appropriately recognizes her style. Janet is a high potential who has just been promoted to a new role. The company is keen to insure she succeeds and hires a coach because there is concern about her style. As it turns out, the style issue is solely based on what one person said two years ago – someone who has since left the company because he couldn’t manage the competing demands of his role. Although the “reputation” is not grounded in reliable data, she is still held accountable for needing to change.
Secondly, opportunities have to be transparent so she has time to indicate interest before a decision is announced and thirdly, executive assessments have to be valid and gender neutral.
Sarah is also a high performer, highly valued by her manager and her manager’s manager. Sarah is recently married and beginning to think about how she will sustain her career and keep family aspirations in balance. Fortunately, her company has a fabulous flex working policy that is used by both men and women, giving flexibility on where people live and work. Sarah asked if it would be possible for her to work flexibly (i.e., a different location, not reduced hours) and was told no. Now, she doubts her manager’s integrity. Why publicize something she can’t use? There was no credible explanation for the decline and it isn’t apparent to her that her job cannot be done from almost any location. Whether the decision to not allow Sarah flexibility was appropriate or not, the lack of transparency creates doubt and distrust.
The issue of women advancing is clearly multi-dimensional and not easily solved. Each party – the woman, the manager and the company – plays a role. And sometimes the fault or blame when it goes wrong can be assigned to all three parties. Likewise the success, when it goes right, is due to all three parties.